The first black leader of one of Ireland’s main churches has said his role sends out a very positive message to the country’s immigrant community.
Rev Dr Sahr Yambasu (63), a native of Sierra Leone, succeeds Rev Tom McKnight as president of the Methodist Church after a ceremony in south Belfast on Wednesday evening.
“I have butterflies in my tummy,” he told The Irish Times ahead of his installation, where he was joined by his wife Clodagh, a daughter of a prominent Methodist family in Longford who is also a minister in the church.
The couple's three adult children, Dr Yambasu's parents living in England, as well as relatives in Sierra Leone and the US joined the ceremony online.
Dr Yambasu, who has worked as a hotel porter and a meat factory worker as well as a taxi driver to help fund his daughter’s university education, said he was looking ahead to his year as leader with a mixture of excitement and anxiety.
“Excitement because it is happening, anxious because it is a huge role and responsibility,” he said.
“I want to believe I have been given the opportunity of service in this role, not because I am black, but because my colleagues and the wider community of Methodists have realised my output in the church and my capacity.
“I think it is an accident, if you like, that I am a person of colour.”
After beginning his ministry in Sierra Leone in the 1980s he was selected for further training at Edgehill College in Belfast. He was awarded a scholarship to study at Cambridge University in England where he gained a PhD.
The minister became an Irish citizen in 1989, and three years later returned to Sierra Leone with his wife and three children but they came back to Ireland in 1995 because of the civil war in his native country.
Currently superintendent of St Patrick’s Waterford Circuit, he said his elevation in the church says a huge amount about its “openness to people”.
“It says to the immigrant community, if you, whatever situation you have been put in, whatever rules, if you commit yourself to them and do them well and faithfully, you will be rewarded,” he said.
“Not just in the church, but in wider society, people will see the quality of your work, and you will be rewarded for that.”
The ceremony at the Agape Centre on Lisburn Road was also attended by the outgoing president Rev McKnight, general secretary of the Methodist Church in Ireland Rev Dr Heather Morrows and three Church of Ireland bishops.
Retired ministers Rev Kenneth Todd and Rev Ivan McElhinney, both of whom served overseas during ministry , acted as Rev Yambasu's sponsors.
“The biggest thing I would like to achieve is to put people first,” said Rev Yambasu.
“I want to be with people and above all I want to highlight that human beings are so important, and often we take that too much for granted, we lose sight of that and we concentrate often sadly on other things.”